Guitars for Vets graduates first ASU student veterans

people playing guitars

As the familiar lyrics to the Dylan-inspired “Wagon Wheel” filled the Pat Tillman Veterans Center at Arizona State University, two student veterans shared their voices and a sentimental moment strumming new guitars they had just received:

“So rock me momma like a wagon wheel,
Rock me momma any way you feel,
Hey momma, rock me.”

The first ASU student veterans to complete the 10-week Guitars for Vets program, Jonathan Jameson and Jason Smith were presented with the stringed instruments by professor Mark von Hagen, director for ASU’s new Office of Veteran and Military Academic Engagement. A former Marine, Jameson is a 2014 ASU graduate, receiving his bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies with a communication concentration in the School of Letters and Sciences. Smith served in the U.S. Army and is an ASU junior majoring in art studies in the Herberger Institute School of Art.

A third student veteran earning a guitar, John Luebke, was on a study-abroad program and unable to attend the pre-Memorial Day ceremony and reception. He is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and an ASU junior majoring in history in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Smith recalled that near the end of his tour in Iraq, he found a guitar that he cleaned up, fixed and started teaching himself to play. It was something he could share with his fellow soldiers.

“Having the Guitars for Vets program helped me reconnect with that sense of calmness and feeling that I haven’t really had since I left Iraq,” he explained. “Having other soldiers or service members around to play music alongside of you is a great feeling.”

Begun as a groundbreaking partnership in 2013, the unique pairing of the ASU School of Music with the Tempe chapter of Guitars for Vets is the first of its kind for the national non-profit organization. Based in Milwaukee, Guitars for Vets, Inc. has 30 chapters that enhance the lives of ailing and injured military veterans by providing them with guitars and music instruction.

ASU’s Music Therapy Clinic in the School of Music and the Phoenix Chapter of Guitars for Vets initially teamed up to help train six veterans from the local area. As they built musical skills and relationships, they also discovered new ways to cope with stress and improve their quality of life after military service.

“Of course, a lot of veterans have trouble expressing their problems or their accomplishments,” said von Hagen. “And the arts – whether it’s poetry or writing or music or theater – offer a space where human beings can communicate with other human beings and get to know each other.”

This past semester was the first time veterans who were students at ASU completed the Guitars for Vets training. Behind the scenes, the program credits its success to a collaboration of ASU music therapy faculty, graduate students, recent Guitars for Vets graduates and Phoenix Chapter leaders.

“As the Guitars for Vets pilot class, these three student veterans deserve our thanks for their determination and willingness to try a new approach to veteran community building at ASU,” said Robin Rio, associate professor of music therapy and director of ASU’s Music Therapy Clinic.

Jameson said participating in the Guitars for Vets program, described as “the healing power of music in the hands of heroes,” has been a way to help transition out of the military and back into civilian life.

“I’ve participated in a few programs in terms of hanging out with other veterans,” he explained. “You can share your stories and express things that you wouldn’t be able to talk about with other people.”